Green pastures: How to start a container herb garden

To make cuttings from basil, simply buy a bunch at the supermarket.

Basil cuttings (photo credit: MIRIAM KRESH)
Basil cuttings
(photo credit: MIRIAM KRESH)
It might seem late to start gardening now, but there’s still time to grow a range of container herbs. Some may be started from cuttings. Plant nurseries are still offering little pots with established herbs that you can nurture to a good size. And it’s not too late to sow some seeds.
“Nurture” is a key word for the home gardener. Herbs and any other garden plants need attention, feeding, and protection from the elements, just as people or pets do. When anyone puts on a regretful face and tells me, “I just have a black thumb,” it’s hard to restrain myself from asking if they really want plants or if they just like the idea of having plants around.
If you don’t have a gardener close by to show you, plant care can be learned by a little study. Half an hour watching a YouTube video or reading through a few Internet links should give you all the information you need to raise a crop of basil, coriander, bell peppers or many other culinary herbs – even on a typical apartment balcony. All you really need to know is how often to water and how much sun or shade to allow the plants.
Apart from your own satisfaction, a container garden gives your kids close contact with nature. For a child growing up in a city, it’s exciting to see green shoots emerge from the soil and put forth edible leaves and flowers. Loosening the soil around plants with an old fork is fun.
Kids love to get their hands in the dirt, so let your children (even teenagers) sow a few seeds in their own pots. They’ll remember sunny quarter-hours pulling wind-born weeds out of the containers, or cool evenings when, picking a handful of herbs for a dinner omelet, they looked up at the stars between the buildings.
Caring for container herbs. Israel’s native herbs aren’t fussy. If you’ve ever hiked in the hills around Gush Etzion in the spring, you’ll remember the fragrance of spiky little thyme bushes growing freely in the rocky dirt. Rosemary thrives near beaches and along highways, where certainly nobody goes pottering around taking care of it. What you need to provide is soil – ordinary potting soil, available in bags from florists, nurseries and the gardening sections of some large stores.
In addition, you need a container with a drainage hole in the bottom and a saucer to catch runoff water. You then only need to provide moisture and a place where your herbs receive some sun and some shade every day. Full, all-day sun isn’t the best. Clear spaces next to outdoor walls where shade falls at least a few hours daily, and place your containers there, against the walls.
Watering. The trick to knowing when to water is to stick a finger into the soil.
If it’s dry, it’s time to water. If the dirt is still moist, wait a day. Water gently; don’t flood the soil. Water close to the plant’s roots, not indiscriminately all over the container. Old-fashioned watering pots give a gentle shower rather than a hard stream. It’s a more considerate way to water delicate seedlings.
In full summer, water every other day.
During sharav (heatwave) weather, you might need to water every day. In cooler weather, check the soil every second or third day. Choose early morning or evening hours for watering, as full sunlight will evaporate the water and it will be wasted.
You’ll have the illusion that the herb has received enough water, while the soil has actually remained mostly dry. Another danger of watering in full sun is that drops that remain on the leaves will burn them.
Feeding the soil. The soil in your containers should be refreshed once a season.
Take handfuls of fresh soil or compost and dig it in loosely with a small hand trowel, or with an old soup spoon. You only need to turn over the top inch or two of soil.
Be careful not to cut through the plant’s roots. You can tell when the soil needs to be built up again when it has shrunk in the container, looking as if part of it has somehow evaporated. If you have kept a plant in the same container for several years – za’atar, for example, which lives many years – refresh the soil now.
Plant hygiene. Pick off dead leaves, flower heads or side stalks that have dried up. The plant will be healthier without them. Weeds grow in containers too, their seeds blown in on the wind. Root them out without mercy. Note, though, that purslane, a summer weed, is edible and tasty. Best practice for bushy herbs like rosemary is to pinch off any flowering tops. But I sometimes allow thyme, chives, basil, rocket, rosemary, za’atar and mint to flower, because I love scattering these delicate, edible blooms over salad or other cold dishes.
Herbs from cuttings. Herbs that thrive from home cuttings are basil, thyme, mint and oregano. No need to shlep out to the plant nursery for these.
Simply buy a bunch at your supermarket or shuk and select a handful of strong, healthy-looking stalks. Put three or four into a glass with water coming a third of the way up the stalks. Put the glasses in a sunny window, or outside in the shade.
Keep an eye on them, replacing water that’s evaporated. In two weeks, each stalk should have grown stringy white roots. Now you can transplant the herbs into dirt. Choose the cooler evening hours to transplant to a container. Make holes in the soil deep enough to accept all the roots and about 1 cm. of stalk of each plant. Replace the soil around the plant and place the container in a shady spot.
After a couple of days, you can move the container to a place that receives several hours of sun every day.
You may choose to plant only one species, say, basil. Unless you fill several long containers with transplanted stalks, it’s unlikely that you’ll harvest enough to make a cup of pesto. On the other hand, even two basil plants will give you clippings to flavor salads and tomato sauces, and possibly a small amount of pesto, until the cold weather returns.
Herbs in starter pots. The easiest way to make a container herb garden is to visit a florist or nursery and pick out plants already established and thriving in starter containers. Transfer them to larger pots, taking care not to damage roots. Pick off any existing flowers so that the plant will direct its energy toward strengthening the roots. Then it’s just a matter of following the routine of watering, picking dead stalks or flower heads off and refreshing the soil once or twice over the year.
I spotted established pots of rosemary, oregano, lemon grass, mint, basil, thyme and lemon verbena at a local florist this past week. In plant nurseries you might find za’atar, parsley, chives, coriander, dill and sage. Ask the nursery gardener which plants suit your home’s growing conditions.
Even one sunny window sill will support a pot of sage or chives.
From seed. Admittedly it’s late to plant seeds, but some species will still give you fruit come late summer. All the peppers can be sown in pots. Frondy herbs like dill, coriander and parsley will come up in a few weeks. Sow 1 cm. deep and cover with soil; water it. Wait until seedlings are 8 cm. high and then thin them out so that there are 8 cm. between plants.
Eat the thinnings! And enjoy your homegrown herbs.